Lies, Damn Lies, and "Race to the Top" Education 'Reform': How MA Got Screwed

By way of Yong Zhao, we find this Economic Policy Institute report, "Let's Do the Numbers", about the false precision in the award process of the Obama Administration's signature school reform initiative. Anyone involved in a grant award process knows that the design of the scoring metrics can have a huge effect on the outcome. Consider Massachusetts which lost millions of dollars because we wanted to examine why we should lower our curricular standards (italics mine):

...we examined the case of Massachusetts, which scored surprisingly low (13th of the 16 finalists) for a state with a reputation of having unusually high academic standards and achievement.

Massachusetts' problem, it turned out, centered on metric (B)(1)(ii) "adopting standards." The RTT guidelines required states to participate in the effort to develop common standards in reading and math. For this participation, Massachusetts, like Tennessee, was awarded the full 20 points allowed. But the guidelines also required states then to adopt these standards by next August. Massachusetts, as we noted, already has very high academic standards, so state policy makers might have had reason to wonder whether hasty adoption of these new common standards would improve or harm Massachusetts education. As a result, the state decided to permit a period of public comment between the time these new common standards are completed, and their formal adoption. For permitting this period of public comment, the state was deemed in violation of the competition rules, and the RTT reviewers docked Massachusetts a whopping 15 (out of 20 possible) points on this metric.

In sum, Massachusetts' willingness to permit the public to comment on its academic standards, combined with a few quirks in the weighting system, cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

I realize any scoring system will have emphasize certain features, and that will favor some activities over others (how that devalues science education will be the subject of a future post). But participatory democracy is kinda important. Making sure we don't make kids stupid by adopting crappy standards is also a responsible thing to do.

This is not very hopey changey.

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Massachusetts really does have high academic standards and achievement, and always has. I have an old Harpers School Geography from the 1880's that touts MA as an example of educational excellence for the nation, at a time when Vermont, for example, was figuring that requiring those under 14 to attend classes for 3 months was good enough.

Thus, a Federal system that is to award millions of dollars to improve education legitimately ought to skip Massachusetts and focus on Mississippi and such instead. If we could get these other states to agree to do something useful. Sadly, it would be hard to entice them to mimic known systems of achievement, such as that of Massachusetts.

Here in Colorado, the state legislature is focusing on a bill that, among other things, changes the teacher tenure process. In my opinion, the teacher's union has had plenty of time to propose reasonable mechanisms to expeditiously get rid of clearly poorly performing teachers but has failed to do so. On the other hand, a system that focuses teacher retention on student achievement as demonstrated by test score improvement and relies on school superintendents for final appeal, is unlikely to work out well.

Scientists need to be concerned about this process. What happens to our future if stressed out and basically unprepared elementary school teachers drop science, history and art? Who is likely to get encouraged or get canned? A popular, easy grading, teacher/coach who can just barely teach to the test, or top of the line history or biology teachers who have their students deeply engaged in highly educational but controversial topics?

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